Half-Timbering, Homosexuality and Whingeing

Ian Sansom

  • England, England by Julian Barnes
    Cape, 272 pp, £15.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 224 05275 6

The title of this novel is a contraction (of the famous phrase from W.E. Henley’s ‘Pro Rege Nostro’, ‘What have I done for you,/England, my England’). The dust-jacket design is a steal (‘after the Our Counties Jig-Saw Puzzle, Tower Press’). The blurb is a cliché (‘As every schoolboy knows ...’: Macaulay out of Auden). The central plot device is borrowed (from Clough Williams-Ellis’s terrible vision in On Trust for the Nation). The central character is a composite caricature (part Robert Maxwell, part Mohamed al-Fayed). The story is as old as the hills (love, betrayal, the search for happiness). The plot structure is both obvious and predictable (a three-parter, with the requisite climaxes and crises), the themes comforting and familiar (the meaning of memory, of nationhood and selfhood), the idiom entirely typical and self-regarding. England, England, in other words, is a book which not only poses questions about integrity and authenticity, but is itself something of a poser.

This is, I’m sure, entirely by design: Julian Barnes is a writer who knows how to spot a fake. Last year, on 15 September, for example, in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, the New Yorker ran a series of articles in praise of the Princess. Clive James put on the most astonishing performance, in a widely reprinted piece entitled ‘Requiem: The author mourns a friend who kept her own counsel’, in which he described his relationship with Diana (‘No, there was nothing between me and her beyond a fleeting friendship’) and hailed her as ‘a burning angel’. In another article, entitled ‘Woman in Earnest: What was on Diana’s mind as summer began?’, Tina Brown, then editor of the magazine, thought that Diana had perhaps found a place to channel all that unrequited love, and was ‘learning to be sustained by it’, while Salman Rushdie (‘Crash: Was the fatal accident a cocktail of death and desire?’) announced that ‘it has all been so disturbingly novelistic, and the novel I’m thinking of isn’t a fairy tale ... I’m thinking of J.G. Ballard’s Crash.’ Writing in the magazine a couple of weeks later, however, Barnes condemned all the gush and the cheap threnodies, described Diana as ‘Britain’s best-kept guinea pig’ and criticised ‘her infatuation with crappy ideas’. ‘When Elton tells us that it seemed to him that she lived her life like a candle in the wind, what churl will point out that it seemed to him she lived her life more like a bloody great chandelier surrounded by flunkies and screens?’ he asked. What churl indeed.

Barnes has an equally sharp eye for the fakers – one of the essays in his collection Letters from London (1995), a great kebab of a book, is entitled, simply, ‘Fake!’ – since he is himself an accomplished compactor and confabulator. He mixes and mulches his glistening raw material, squeezes it into novelty-shaped moulds and palms it off as the real thing. Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) is really just a ground up thesis, seasoned, reconstituted and skewered on a long, thin story. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989) is a series of little oyster-like essays set in the vast grey, greasy sea of history and The Porcupine (1992) is a political fable done up in a kind of free indirect sauce. Barnes loves to dissemble and pretend: as the hack Edward Pygge, composer of the satiric ‘Greek Street’ columns written for the New Review back in the Seventies, and as Dan Kavanagh, author of the ‘Duffy’ crime novels of the Eighties, which come complete with their own arch little author biographies (‘Dan Kavanagh was born in County Sligo in 1946. Having devoted his adolescence to truancy, venery and petty theft, he left home at 17 and signed on as a deckhand on a Liberian tanker’). In fact, the only serious complaint Barnes seems to suffer from as a writer is the classic faker’s tic: the continual, guilty habit of tipping the nod and the wink – the composer in the first, tone-setting story in his collection of short stories, Cross Channel (1996), is called Leonard Verity.

In Barnes’s latest confection, set in the not-too-distant-future, the wealthy and unscrupulous entrepreneur Sir Jack Pitman imports and rebuilds all the major English tourist attractions on the Isle of Wight and opens up the island as a theme-park offering ‘Quality Leisure’ to wealthy American and Japanese tourists. Sir Jack, in the process, ends up rewriting English history, reproducing a new England in a kind of swirling, bizarre shorthand (Pitman – get it?) and effectively destroying the old. Old England simply cannot compete with Pitman’s Island and gradually, after the inevitable economic collapse, the wars with Scotland and massive depopulation, it becomes a truly post-industrial society: ‘Cities dwindled; mass transit systems were abandoned ... Coal was dug again.’

This ingenious notion is of course poached. In 1947 the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, founder of Portmeirion, published a book about the National Trust, On Trust for the Nation, which began with his imagining ‘that by some miracle, all the lands and buildings possessed by the National Trust were to be uprooted and set adrift and then, by some further sorcery, reassembled into one fabulous island ... the pith and pick of England close-packed into a compass smaller than that of the Isle of Wight’. It is possible that Barnes may not have read Williams-Ellis: he may only have read John Gaze’s history of the National Trust, Figures in a Landscape (1988), which discusses Williams-Ellis’s vision, or perhaps Patrick Wright’s A Journey through Ruins (1991), which quotes Gaze quoting Williams-Ellis, or perhaps one of the countless other books and articles which sketch in the details of the imaginary Island. In any case, Barnes has his sources.

England, England is a big boiled conceit, in a number of senses: in an age witnessing the proliferation of mini-states, Barnes has written a novel about the creation of a micro-state; in an era when critics’ heads are crammed full of vague ideas about ‘constructions of Englishness’, Barnes has written a book about the literal construction of England; in an age which values the preservation of the English countryside, Barnes exposes the forces which continue to shape it. England, England is a brilliant book about the future by being about the past; it is a book riddled with millennial anxieties which hardly mentions the millennium; the whole thing is a fancy, but an apocalyptic fancy, a revelation of things to come.

It is all this, and much, much less, for Barnes is an elegant writer of modest pretensions who is sometimes mistaken for a serious thinker, or wrongly dismissed as a smart-alec. He is too easily confused with his cocksure narrators, or his host of blabbermouth characters – the boys in Metroland (1980), with their continual écrasing and épating, the snobbish, show-off Oliver in Talking It Over (1991), the ‘Wind and Wisdom of Jack Lupton’ in Before She Met Me 1982), the avuncular Leslie in Staring at the Sun (1986). And there is also a strong temptation to confuse his sometimes complex subject-matter with his consistently simple themes. Subject citations for Barnes’s work in the Library of Congress catalogue read: ‘Flaubert, Gustave – 1821-1880 – Fiction. Literary historians – France – Fiction. Novelists, French – Fiction’ (Flaubert’s Parrot); ‘Women – England – Fiction’ (Staring at the Sun); ‘World history – Fiction’ (A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters); ‘Trials (Political crimes and offences) – Europe, Eastern. Fiction. Politicians – Europe, Eastern – Fiction’ (The Porcupine); ‘London (England) – Social life and customs – 20th century’ (Letters from London). For all their impressive variety, Barnes’s books seem eventually to revolve and resolve around the simple tooth-cracking question of the relationship between truth and fiction: Flaubert is really just a jujube; Sir Jack Pitman is a bit of sugar paste.

Another common mistake is to think that Barnes’s highly polished surfaces necessarily imply profound and troubled depths. He has a startling facility with metaphors and similes, and an uncanny talent for analogy, and yet his writing is not so much mannered as well-mannered. It has a strange politeness, almost medical or clerical in its thoroughness, as if, rather than writing, Barnes was dispensing, from a black bag, or ministering from a sick-call set, prescribing lozenges or offering wafers. There is, for example, his anxious habit of indicating his theme in his opening sentences. Turning to page one of Talking It Over and reading that ‘My name is Stuart, and I remember everything,’ one can be pretty sure that Stuart’s problem is going to be that he can’t forget (and sure enough, 250 pages later, Stuart’s ex-wife is forced to perform an extraordinary coup de théâtre in order to save him from his corrosive memory). Before She Met Me begins ominously: ‘The first time Graham Hendrick watched his wife commit adultery he didn’t mind at all.’ Second time around, poor Graham begins to mind very much, suspecting her of carrying on with a male friend. He ends up stabbing the friend to death with a carving knife and cutting his own throat. And so when Barnes begins England, England with the lines, ‘“What’s your first memory?” someone would ask. And she would reply, “I don’t remember,” ’ he’s giving the reader fair warning.

This strong solicitous streak in the writing and the self-mocking undertone of many of the most brilliant metaphors make Barnes more like Alan Bennett than he is like Martin Amis or Ian McEwan. Indeed, on page 71 of England, England the following serio-ludicro simile suddenly unfurls:

It’s like looking for the tag to unwrap a CD. You know that feeling? There’s a coloured strip running all the way round, and you can see what’s inside and you want to get at it, but the strip doesn’t seem to start anywhere no matter how many times you run your fingernail around it?

This seems to allude to, and update, a part of Bennett’s famous ‘Take a Pew’ monologue from Beyond the Fringe:

You know life, it’s rather like opening a tin of sardines. We are all of us looking for the key ... We roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life, we reveal the sardines, the riches of life, therein and we get them out, and we enjoy them. But, you know, there’s always a little piece in the corner you can’t get out.

Sardines and CDs: Barnes and Bennett both ironise and embody a wry, domestic, homespun English philosophy.

In the end, surprisingly, it adds up: the steady accumulation of old saws and second-hand quips and images amounts to a stockpile of precious materials, a metaphorical laying down of fat to ward off the onset of wintry scepticism. This, his books seem to insist, is real. Isn’t it? And this? And this? Whence the obsessive list-making, which scrolls on unperturbed throughout the earlier novels and now into England, England. A revised list of Barnes’s Top Ten Lists might now run: (1) ‘Braithwaite’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas’ in Flaubert’s Parrot, a book which might itself be described as one long, fancy list. (2) The dictator Stoyo Petakanov’s heroic alphabetical listing of the numerous honours conferred on him, beginning on page 116 of The Porcupine and ending just over four pages later. (3) Chris Lloyd’s list, comprising the whole of the two-page Chapter 13 of Metroland, of the remembered contents and furnishings of his adolescent bedroom, including paperbacks ‘lovingly covered in transparent Fablon’ and ‘the day’s dumped clothes’. (4) Jean Serjeant’s two pathetic, contrasting lists, in Staring at the Sun, of the things she knew when she married and the things she wished she’d known, including, in the first category,

how to plait hair;
how to insert a Dutch cap;
how to bottle fruit and jam;
how to smile when she didn’t feel like
smiling

and, in the second, ‘how to know in advance whether her remarks were stupid or intelligent’ and ‘how to ask the right questions’. (5) Some ‘reverberant facts’ about the heart from the ‘Parenthesis’ in A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters: ‘the heart is the first organ to develop in the embryo ... during life the size, shape and position of the heart are subject to considerable variation.’ (6) Gillian’s accidental discovery of Stuart’s ‘thoughtful and touching’ timetable for preparing a romantic candlelit meal in Talking It Over:

6.00 Peel spuds
6.10 Roll pastry
6.20 Switch oven on
6.20 Bath ...
8.00 Open wine
8.15 Check potatoes browning
8.20 Put on water for peas
8.25 Light candles
8.30 G arrives!!

‘Those two exclamation marks really did for me,’ Gillian remarks. (7) Chris, again, in Metroland, making a list of reasons he married his wife Marion, including, crucially: ‘Because she tolerates my making restless lists like this.’ (8) Graham’s long, slow, deranged totting up of Ann’s previous lovers in Before She Met Me. (9) The index to Letters from London, which includes entries such as ‘Alcohol: Liebfraumilch and Ron Brown MP, 18-20; champagne and Ron Brown MP, 20; sparkling wine and Ron Brown MP, 21’. (10) Of the numerous contenders from England, England, including the detailed sexual histories of two of the main characters, a long drool over English food (‘Yorkshire pudding, Lancashire hotpot, Sussex pond pudding, Coventry godcakes, Aylesbury duckling, Brown Windsor Soup’), and a series of brilliant précis of the Island’s attractions (‘They had a half-size Big Ben; they had Shakespeare’s grave and Princess Di’s; they had Robin Hood ... the White Cliffs of Dover, and beetle-black taxis shuttling through the London fog to Cotswold villages full of thatched cottages serving Devonshire cream teas’), the undoubted winner is the list of ‘Fifty Quintessences of Englishness’ put together by Sir Jack’s market researchers. Number One Quintessence, not surprisingly, is the Royal Family, though half-timbering makes it in unexpectedly at Number 34, just above homosexuality and whingeing, but way below TV classic serials. Only one thing is missing from this list of English Quintessences, which makes one doubt its authenticity: there is no mention of the novels of Julian Barnes.